All parents want to feed their family well. The trick is that life seems to get in the way: Soccer games, violin lessons, long work days, and a lack of ready-to-go ingredients –all conspire against parents’ best intentions to sit down with their kids for healthy, home-cooked meals. Over the years, I’ve found that planning a weekly but flexible menu—creating a lineup for five weeknight dinners, with options for leftovers—is the number-one key to keeping my sanity as a working mother and home cook. Here are my tips for making this a reality in your home, too.
1. On Saturday or Sunday, sit down with a blank piece of paper and the family calendar. Find out which nights will require especially quick dinner prep because of after-school or evening commitments. Wide-open evenings? Pencil in meals that are easy but best fresh, such as fish. [Also build in meals that, if you don’t end up making them, can be saved easily, such as chicken breasts (freeze for when you have more time, or cook and use in something else).
2. Look for foods you need to use up, like a few cherry tomatoes, a neglected lemon, leftover herbs, opened jars of salsa. Work these into your meal ideas; almost anything can go into a salad, pasta sauce, omelets, or soup.
3. Think about the season: What’s in abundance at the produce stands? What does your body feel like eating? Let nature guide your choices. You’ll save money and your food will taste better.
4. Make a thorough grocery list based on your menu ideas, and shop at the beginning of the week. Post the meal plan on the fridge, and check it before bedtime each night so you know whether you need to defrost something overnight. Then follow the menu, but feel free to jettison or switch around meals to accommodate unforeseen schedule changes. Plan for leftovers: Cook extra chicken, beans, vegetables, whatever; then plan them into future meals to save time. (For example, roast two chickens instead of one; it saves energy, too.)
5. Give yourself a night off. One of my friends serves popcorn, cut-up cheese, and apples for their Saturday dinner. Nothing wrong with that, and her kids love it! Breakfast food is another restful option: Whole-grain pancakes or scrambled eggs make an easy, quick, and fun dinner.